Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets

At 11:15 a.m. the prisoner, William Collon of 406 East 142d Street, the Bronx, was being led up a staircase from the detention pen by Patrolman Michael Murphy. The staircase leads into the courtroom, about fifteen feet from the bench. The landing is flanked on all sides by iron-grated doors. As the prisoner reached the landing he pushed open a door, climbed a three-foot-high ledge, opened a window that was eighteen inches wide and leaped, landing on 161st Street, near Third Avenue.

The New York Times, July 2, 1952

After 23-year-old Collon jumped 20 feet to the street below, all hell broke loose at the Bronx Borough Courthouse in New York City. Detective Jeremiah O’Connor heroically jumped on the window ledge in an attempt to grab Collon, but was unable to catch him. He fired his revolver three times, including a warning shot in the air. Detective David Wahl arrived at the window and fired six times. Patrolman Robert E. Lee (no kidding) leaned between the two detectives and fired twice. An unidentified detective in the street fired four shots.

749px-Bronx_Boro_Court_SW_jeh

Bronx Borough Court House in 2008. Courtesy of Jim Henderson via Wikimedia.

Passersby on the street below scattered in fear when the shots rang out and shopkeepers took cover under their store counters. Patrolman Irving Resnick was standing in the street below the window. He seized a man running by him that he thought was the prisoner, but another nearby patrolman, James Coyle, shouted that he had the wrong man—Coyle had spotted Collon crouched behind a parked car a block away.

Fifteen shots were fired in less than a minute on the morning of Tuesday, July 1, 1952. The escaping prisoner was hit three times: in the spine, the elbow and the back. He was carried back to the courthouse and taken to the hospital where he was listed in critical condition. When asked why he jumped, he said he didn’t know.

Pauline_Weidt_injured_by_stray_bullet__Photo

Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Lancaster, Ohio), July 12, 1952.

Collon was awaiting arraignment at police court when he broke away from Murphy. The previous Sunday night, while still on probation for an earlier burglary, he was caught trying to burglarize an apartment at 202 St. Ann’s Avenue.

Two bystanders were shot during Collon’s escape attempt. Anna Marie Alers, a pregnant 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, was visiting friends who lived near the courthouse. After hearing the shots she leaned out a window and was hit in the thigh by a bullet. She was taken to Lincoln Hospital, where she was listed in fair condition.

Pauline Weidt, a 28-year-old bookkeeper for a dental laboratory on 161st Street, was working near an open window that morning, trying to catch the breeze on a hot summer day. One of the wayward bullets lodged her in breastbone. Pauline was also taken to Lincoln Hospital, where the bullet was removed and she was released.

The following day Magistrate Joseph Martinis ordered “each prisoner will be accompanied by a police officer from the pen to the bench.” Two weeks later Collon, whose condition had improved, was indicted on charges of third degree burglary and unlawful escape.

The police court operated at the courthouse until 1977 when the building was closed by the city. Currently on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, the building is under redevelopment by a private developer.

Resisting Arrest

Resisting Arrest

Herbert Cochran, found guilty of burglary yesterday at Fairmont, was sentenced yesterday evening by Judge Stubbs to nine years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. After hearing the sentence Cochran cursed the judge and the attorney in the case and resisted the sheriff but was thrown down and manacled.

 

When Sheriff Dinen went to the jail this morning to prepare his prisoners for the trip to the penitentiary he found that Herb Cochran had torn his clothing into shreds and would not put on any other clothes. The sheriff forced him into a shirt, overalls and a mackintosh and forced him into a hack and drove to the train.

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), March 7, 1900

Herb Cochran, alias H.C. Smith, was not a happy camper when his mugshot was forcibly taken in Omaha, Nebraska. Five years earlier, in 1895, he went on the lam after boldly cutting through the roof of the jail in Geneva, Nebraska. After such a long period of freedom, it was a terrible thing to have to return to jail.

Sheriff Ogg got word from the Omaha Police on Friday, November 24, 1899, that they had arrested Herb. Ogg traveled to the big city and took charge of the prisoner. He brought him back to Geneva, 130 miles southwest of Omaha, to face the charge of breaking and entering a store in his hometown.

Fillmore County courthouse

Postcard from the Fillmore County NEGenWeb Site

A troubled youth, Herb ran away from his home in the small village of Fairmont, Nebraska, when he was just a young teen. Then came his arrest for breaking and entering a few years later. He didn’t hold back from displaying his anger towards authorities in the courtroom during his trial. That, along with the notoriety he’d received for breaking out of jail and avoiding recapture for years, attracted large crowds. Every day during his trial, the Fillmore County Court House was full to capacity.

His lawyer tried to sell the argument that Herb was in the town of Table Rock on the night of the crime, but the jury wasn’t buying it. He was found guilty and the judge sentenced him to the state penitentiary on March 6, 1900.

East cell block Nebraska State pen

East Cell Block of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Nebraska State Government website.

Nine years is a long sentence, but Herb had not been a cooperative prisoner.

Featured photo: Herbert Cochran’s 1899 carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

An Experienced Woman

An Experienced Woman

When Judge Smith sentenced Aimee Meloling to serve three years in San Quentin Prison for burglary, she commented, “May your honor’s heart soon be as soft as your head.” Aimee might have rejoiced at getting a lighter sentence than her husband, Albert Webb Meloling, known as “A.W.” He was ordered to serve five years in Folsom Prison for the same crime. However Aimee was under the impression she was going to get off with a slap on the wrist, not hard time in San Quentin.

The Melolings, a young, middle class couple from New York, had broken into the room of a fellow guest at the upscale Granada Hotel, a residential hotel in Los Angeles, in 1905. They stole what was described as a set of “handsome hand-painted chinaware” along with some “valuable steins” (beer anyone?). The crime was burglary, so planning was involved.

Gra400

The Granada Hotel in Los Angeles, circa 1900.

Was the theft just a moment of weakness for the Melolings or was it an ongoing practice? Did they have an irresistible eye for attractive china they couldn’t afford or were they temporarily short on cash and in need of something to pawn? Both got long sentences for a crime that seems relatively minor, so possibly the police suspected they had dabbled with burglary before. Or maybe the judge just didn’t care for Aimee’s attitude.

The prison sentences came as a shock—the couple was under the impression they were going to get probation. At a court hearing a month earlier they met a man who had just been sentenced to five years in San Quentin. After being introduced by the deputy sheriff, they had a nice chat with the soon-to-be prisoner. The deputy apparently suspected what the Melolings didn’t yet realize—they would soon be headed to prison themselves and would need all the friends they could find there.

Aimee three

San Quentin Prison mugshots of Aimee Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Albert three

Folsom Prison mugshots of Albert W. Meloling. Collection of the California State Archives.

Aimee served two years and four months in San Quentin. Before she was released, in October 1907, an appeal was made to the governor of California to commute A.W.’s sentence so his wife didn’t have to “survive on her own.” The governor agreed and commuted the sentence but for unknown reasons it was later restored. A.W. wasn’t released until January 1909, after serving three and a half years.

Out of prison, the couple reunited and lived in a variety of locations in California. A.W. tried his hand at an array of careers, ranging from hotel proprietor in San Francisco (lock your room!) to running an auto livery in Santa Barbara and working as a commerical artist in Oakland. The couple had a son in 1916 but they later divorced.

By 1933 Aimee was the matron of the Alameda County jail in northern California. She looks happy, in a 1933 newspaper photo, escorting a new prisoner to San Quentin, but of course her role was as the jailer, not the jailed.

It isn’t a total surprise that a woman who didn’t expect to go to prison but ended up there anyway chose a career in the corrections field. After all, she had a lot of experience.

Mrs__Meloling_jail_matron_crop

Alameda Jail Matron Aimee Meloling, lower left. The Oakland Tribune, January 24, 1933.

Dead Man Naming

Coleman_alive_dead

Front view mugshot and postmortem photo of Charles M. Coleman from Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Sheriff James S. Scarborough and his posse of cowboys were out looking a burglar who had blown open the safe of a local store on the night of April 19, 1906, making off with $302.61. Unfortunately the crime wasn’t discovered until the following day, giving the culprit plenty of time to escape. The posse set out on horseback to search the scrubby grasslands in the vicinity of Dime Box, Texas, where the crime occurred.

The focus of the search was a stranger who’d been hanging around the town of Lexington the previous day, claiming he was an engineer for the Sante Fe Railroad. The last time the man was seen he was headed towards Dime Box late in the evening on the night of the safe cracking.

Scarborough, a well-respected lawman with a fierce crime-fighting reputation, was alone and it was getting dark when he encountered a man walking along the railroad tracks south of Lexington. He ordered the stranger to halt but rather than stopping, the man pulled out a gun and fired three times in rapid succession at the sheriff, missing him with all three shots. Scarborough fired back and he was the better shot. A bullet hit the stranger in the right side of his chest. He fell over and died several minutes later without uttering any last words.

lee-county-sheriff-james-scarborough

Sheriff James S. Scarborough, circa 1899. Collection of Turner Publishing/Historic Photos of Texas Lawmen by Mike Cox.

The dead man had more than $340 in cash on him—some of it was the stolen cash—however he carried no identification. He also had six drill bits, a punch, one brace, two large rolls of fuse, twenty-two short pieces of fuse cut ready for use, and a pint flask of powder on him. Clearly the man was a safe blower—a “yegg”—in the parlance of law enforcement.

The sheriff wrote up an exhaustive physical description of the man, along with details about the crime. The information was placed in the local newspapers. To cover all the bases, a local photographer was called to prop up the dead man and photograph him. Though the photo wasn’t published, if someone recognized the man’s description, a copy would be mailed to the person to get a positive I.D. The photographer made some cash too; he sold 24 copies of the photo to the locals at 25 cents a copy!

Scarborough letter

Letter (page 1 of 3) from Sheriff Scarborough to Warden McClaughry. Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Leavenworth Penitentiary guard Samuel D. Sample read an article in the Daily Times Herald, a Texas paper, about a professional bank robber who was killed the previous week by the sheriff of Lee County. He thought the description of the dead man matched that of a recently released Leavenworth prisoner, Charles Michael Coleman. Charles  completed a four-year sentence in Leavenworth for post office burglary the previous month. Upon his release he was given a train ticket to Houston, Texas, where his wife lived.

Samuel brought the article to the attention of the Robert McClaughry, Leavenworth’s warden, who got in touch with Sheriff Scarborough. The sheriff sent McClaughry his description of the man (“hair as fine as silk”) and a copy of the dead man’s photo. The warden confirmed the man was ex-Leavenworth inmate, Charles M. Coleman, and he wrote back to the sheriff: “Yourself and officers are congratulated on getting rid of this dangerous burglar without he having succeeded in killing any of you before he was killed himself. We had enough of him here and were glad to get rid of him. We also identify in your photograph the coat and shirt that were given to Coleman when he left here.”

Born about 1858 in New York to Irish immigrant parents, Charles left home when he was 17. His first prison sentence occurred in 1886—four years in San Quentin—for a burglary he committed in Calaveras County, California. More prison stints followed in the 1890s, when he was incarcerated in the state prisons of Illinois and Wisconsin for burglary and robbery.

Coleman_SanQuentin

Chas. M. Coleman’s San Quentin Prison mugshot. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, given his talent as a safe blower, Charles was a skilled machinist and mechanic. While he was incarcerated at Leavenworth he was in charge of work on the huge steel gates at both the east and west entrances to the prison. He also made the doors and gratings of the prison gates. Though he was an expert at both breaking safes and making prison gates, he died unidentified and was buried in an unmarked grave near where he fell in rural Texas.

Bury Freddie There

Fred Mason

Fred Mason, Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate Photograph, 1899. Collection of NARA-Kansas city.

Justice was sometimes meted out in an arbitrary and indiscriminate fashion, or so it seemed in October 1899 when Fred Mason was given a five-year sentence to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Jewelry and “trinkets” belonging to a white man, J. M. Golledge, were apparently found in Fred’s possession. He claimed the actual thief was a man named George Carpenter however he pleaded guilty to burglary. He was probably hoping that, given his youth, Judge Townsend of Chickasha, Indian Territory, would be lenient. Clearly Fred misjudged the judge.

Fred arrived at Leavenworth on October 9, 1899. He was 16-years-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Born in Texas, Fred had no education and left home at the age of 12. Prior to prison he worked as a hotel waiter and a bootblack.

During his year and a half stay at Leavenworth he was put into solitary confinement 11 times for talking (which was never allowed), laughing, using foul language, marching out of step and loafing when he was supposed to be working. Given that Leavenworth housed some of the hardest criminals in America, it’s impossible not to wonder if Fred’s tendency to break the rules wasn’t actually a desperate attempt to get himself removed from the rest of the inmate population and, consequently, out of harm’s way.

Fred’s last stay in solitary lasted almost a month, from December 19, 1900, to January 17, 1901. It’s likely that shortly after he got out of solitary he was moved to the hospital because Fred had a serious case of tuberculosis. In fact it’s almost certain that at times when the guards claimed he was avoiding his tasks he was actually too weak to work.

On April 6, 1901, Fred Mason died at the Leavenworth Prison Hospital. His cause of death was listed as “tabes mesenterica,” which, in layman’s terms, means he literally wasted away. An autopsy found that tuberculosis lesions were spread throughout his abdomen—he had probably been unable to eat for weeks, maybe months. His heart was described as “small and flabby” and his aortic valve was narrowed, probably also a result of his tuberculosis.

The Leavenworth warden, Robert W. McClaughry, told Fred’s mother that her son suffered shortness of breath and had gone deaf before he died. Perhaps trying to ease a mother’s grief over the loss of her only son, he also noted that Fred “did not suffer much pain.” McClaughry had arrived at Leavenworth just three months before Fred Mason became an inmate. A reformer in the field of penal correction, the 60-year-old McClaughry believed that prisons could work to improve their inmate’s lives, not simply punish them. He also introduced Bertillon’s system of cataloging suspects and criminals into the United States and it’s likely that McClaughry initiated the process of taking inmate photos at Leavenworth.

McClaughry was writing to Fred’s mother, in part, because he needed to know what the family wanted done with the body. Rutha Mason wrote back, thanking McClaughry for letting her know right away that her only son had died and for his “kindness to Fred.” She wanted to know if Fred had left any final words for his family. McClaughry wrote back to say that he had been unconscious for three days prior to his death and had been unable to speak.

Mason telegram

Telegram from Ruth Mason to Warden McClaughry, from Fred Mason’s Leavenworth file. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

The Mason family was too poor to afford to have their son’s body returned to Texas, so his mother requested that prison officials “bury Freddie there.” She mentioned that she had made every effort possible to get him a pardon but had been unsuccessful. The warden reassured her that her son’s grave would be marked with a “neat headstone, so that if any time his friends desire to remove his remains, they can be identified and obtained.”

Currently Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary maintains a cemetery for prisoners but it is not accessible to the public nor does it contain any headstones.